Stream of Anxiety

I woke up today feeling anxious. Lying in bed under the warm duvet, becoming aware of the cold pale light of dawn, I felt like closing down. Money worries surfaced somewhere between my stomach and my solar plexus, and a feeling of despondency filled my chest and my throat. I felt like a field mouse waking up too early from its hibernation.

Monday morning is often a difficult time. I had felt these same anxieties many times when I was commuting up to London, but over the months of lockdown and Covid-19 I had unlearned some of these habits and patterns. Now they seemed to come back with a bite.

It felt like I had been kicked by a horse.

There is no easy way to deal with feelings of anxiety, but I have learned over the years not to ignore them. So rather than dismiss them, I lay in bed trying to engage with the complexity of what I was feeling.

What was it that I was experiencing? Fear? Resentment? It felt a bit like that. At times, I have felt almost paralysed by anxiety, as if I couldn’t move. But this was milder, a vague feeling that something awful was about to happen.

I scanned what the sources of my anxiety might be. They seemed to come mainly from the fact that I haven’t properly got my head around how much tax I will owe HMRC at the end of the year. That’s not uncommon: money worries are among the most common causes of anxiety. My mind immediately ran to imagining resolutions, ploughing through papers, spreadsheets, getting my head around cashflow, doing sums like a mental gymnast to tot up the worst case scenario. This was followed by a feeling of helpless regret, that I didn’t have the energy to do all this, and that I was somehow unable to cope.

I realised that this was a typical fight or flight pattern. The conscious mind starts to wrestle with the issue by latching on to potential solutions. And then it wants to run away. The urge to fight is followed by a sudden capitulation.

It was still before 7 am. I tried to let my mind go still and to feel the warmth and security of the bedroom, and to enjoy the fact that I was in the warm and outside it seemed cheerless and cold. Gradually I began to feel stronger.

After about half an hour, I felt a strong urge for coffee. My body felt energised by the thought, but as I threw off the covers, the energy drained away. The dullness in the room felt oppressive and unbearable. But then as I walked down the stairs, I could hear the cat miaowing angrily that it had been ignored, and my heart went out to this tetchy old soul, always so demanding, always so loud and insistent that it had not been given the food it wanted, that its bowl had not been refilled.

I made the coffee, put out the rubbish, and as I sat down, the cat hopped up and sat next to me as it always did. Maybe life was not so bad?

I expect that if you are reading this, and you have yourself been feeling anxious, that you may be ready at this stage for me to explain how you should handle the anxiety. But the reality is that I am still feeling anxious, and I don’t have any particular advice.

It is 9.15 a.m. and I am just starting to get to work for the week. I haven’t been generating much cash flow in recent months, but I am hoping to get some work in soon. I look down from the chalet office at the back of the garden, and the house makes me feel tender, but the lights are off in the bedrooms and I feel a pang that the kids are not at home with us. The trees and shrubs in the garden are all the colours of autumn, and the sun has just come out from behind a cloud and is throwing a pale yellow light on the leaves. It still looks cold and dreary, but the glint of sunlight lightens my mood.

In the course of writing the sentence above, my anxiety has shifted. I feel a momentary resolution, and a voice in my head says, Let’s get on with the day. I ponder this. Is it real, or is it just my mind telling me to put on a brave face? Will this more positive feeling last, or will it disappear by the time I reach the full stop at the end of this sentence?

(I note with mild amusement that the sentence has ended with a question-mark rather than a full stop. My inner voice says, I guess that’s life!)

So now I wonder why I am writing this? I’m sorry I don’t have any answers. I still feel anxious, and part of me just wants to share that.

I feel people don’t talk enough about how they are feeling. I am sure that many people start their weeks with these feelings. Most of the time, I put them behind me, I focus on the coffee, or on planning the day, or having a shower. I expect many people do the same thing. But today, I wanted to explore the feeling a bit more. Has this helped? I think so. A little bit.

When I return from the house with a cup of coffee, I can hear the bin men and the wail of the rubbish truck. I reflect back on this odd stream of conscious piece I have just written. My wife has just noted happily that the sun is out again., and the garden looks quite different now. I recall the line in a poem, All things are a flowing, Heraclitus says. It reminds me that my anxiety will pass.

I have an urge to end this piece with the line “the sound of the rubbish truck faded”. But in fact, the sound is still there, its rising and falling making me think of someone breathing.

Lockdown Strategies

So how are you coping with the lockdown?

Everyone has their own way of dealing with adversity. After three weeks of Corona virus lockdown, many of us are feeling the strain. The lack of any clear schedule for when this is likely to end is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the situation. I wanted to share my own experience of what is working well for me and also what has been less successful. I hope some of the tips below are useful, and I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts and tips on how to deal with the challenge of social distancing and self-isolation.

My top 10 tips (in no particular order) are below with one extra and a personal reminiscence thrown in:

Develop a structure to the day. Whether you are working or not, having a clear shape to your day is key. Routines are important for mental health, and help us keep a sense of purpose and motivation. For those working, getting up a few hours before you start work and having a clear end to the working day, with regular breaks in between, will help you maintain work-life balance. If you are working from home, it is easy to lose this sense of structure. For those without work, it is doubly difficult but no less necessary.

Find time to self-reflect. The Covid-19 lockdown is a new and challenging experience for all of us, no matter what one’s circumstances, no matter whether you are among the essential staff who are still required to go in to work, staff having to work from home, or among those who have been furloughed or out of work, Take a little time each day to self-reflect and to get in touch with how you are feeling. Meditation and mindfulness can be helpful, but so can writing a diary or even just having some down time in your flat or garden.

Enjoy those around you. Everyone is different so everyone will have a different way of coping with the disruption of lockdown. This situation is unprecedented and people are often unexpectedly resourceful when the chips are down. Whether it’s colleagues you’re talking with via Zoom or the people in your household, appreciate the people around you. You may find that personality traits that you didn’t particularly like about someone in “normal” life are actually valuable and helpful coping strategies. Share laughter and try to see the best in what people offer.

Don’t ignore your emotions. It’s natural to feel anxiety, depression, fear, grief, self-doubt and all the other emotions that make us human, especially during such a challenging period. Everyone has their own private concerns, and it’s important to confront these, whether or not you decide to share them with others. It might be concern about ageing or vulnerable family members who might become exposed to the virus, fears about job security and finances, or worries about mental health during the lockdown. We are all humans, and a human tragedy is unfolding as the virus progresses. Try to be honest about how this is affecting you, seek help from friends or families if it helps to discuss, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you have worries about how you are coping.

Be honest but bite your tongue! Especially if you are in a household with limited space, it’s easy for tempers to flare. It’s therefore important to be honest when you feel impatient, resentful or angry about other people’s actions, or when you feel your efforts are under appreciated and you want more recognition. But try to communicate these feelings in a sensitive way, and be aware that others are in the same boat. Flaring up when others least expect it is not helpful. It can be helpful to create a structure for having honest, open, non-judgemental dialogue with colleagues, family or friends.

Limit your screen time. Don’t spend your whole time on the mobile phone. Having worked as a journalist for many years, I know first hand the tendency for keeping in touch with events to become an obsessive activity. I certainly have a tendency to look up the latest data on Covid19 casualties or breaking news about potential vaccines as soon as I wake up in the morning, or last thing at night. Spending too much time tapping the latest news on the mobile, however, can become a way of avoiding the need to self-reflect and get in touch with emotions. Rather like alcohol it can be a stimulant that becomes compulsive. The lockdown has made it all too easy to spend most of your day on social media chats and groups and to forget the need for exercise, perspective and self-care.

Enjoy the evenings and weekends. I have found it helpful to differentiate my work and leisure time, and to ensure that they felt different, so that the days and nights didn’t all blur into one another. Having a clear routine for the day and then the evening, and having a different pattern to work days and weekends helps create a structure to your week.

Look to nature. I love walking around the garden during the day time, and I also have an allotment which is hard work but mentally soothing. Even if you are in a flat in a city environment, observing nature can be a huge comfort. If you have a garden, try to get out each day for an hour or two, even if the weather is cold. Or spend some time exercising in a nearby park, while still observing the social distancing regulations. Looking at trees and birds or even just the blueness of the sky can help take you away from any dark places inside. Even if you cannot do that, look out of the window and get in touch with the nature around you.

Sleep and eat well. I never feel right if I let my diet slip, or if I stay up late and then sleep in for most of the morning. Many people will face the Covid19 pandemic and lockdown with feelings of anxiety and fear, and this can easily affect normal sleep and dietary patterns. Here again, people are so different it’s difficult to be prescriptive about what is a right or wrong approach. Some people may overeat when they feel anxious, others tend to eat nothing at all; some people may suffer from insomnia, while others may sleep at all hours and feel stressed as a result. Try to get in soothing routines that help you east and sleep normally; it could be a family meal in the early evening or a bath before bedtime, or whatever works for you. Having time for self-reflection can also help you identify what works best.

Learn a new skill or hobby. I find that learning is one of the most motivating things I can do at any time. Whether it’s a foreign language or learning a new craft skill such as pottery, learning helps me dig myself out of the mazes of introspection and opens up a world of limitless possibilities. The number of people offering courses during the lockdown has increased exponentially, so now is a great time to try something new. Follow your gut feeling about what this should be. Now might be a great time to talk to your employer about some extra training or a qualification. But you might just try some new hobby that you’d never thought you would have time for. Bee keeping? Icelandic? Online yoga? Whatever it is, learning a new skill can be the opportunity of a lifetime and will help you make the most of the lockdown.

And finally…

Practice self-compassion. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most people I know have regrets about how they are doing during the lockdown. Whether it’s having flare-ups with family members, failing to keep the pace up at work or not getting the novel written, no-one quite manages to live up to their own expectations. I am probably the worst offender I know in this category so my final recommendation is to practice self-compassion. When the lockdown started, I planned to learn computer programming, complete a Great Courses in Physics and Quantum Theory, learn German and write a book on the Energy Transition. By the end of week one of the lockdown, these ambitions had multiplied in much the same way that bindweed proliferates in an allotment. I realised that the only way to get something done would be to limit my ambitions, and even if I did not achieve these more limited goals, not to be too hard on myself. Don’t beat yourself up. Stay well!

A Personal Reminiscence

When she entered her teens my daughter became conscious of the emptiness of the universe, the void. She had had a dream that she was on her own in a space capsule, “lost in space” just like in the old movie. She asked me: but supposing we are all just on our own travelling through empty space and that nothing has any meaning?

She had always enjoyed doing her room up (at vast expense as it always seemed to need another coat of paint!) and I was struck by her image of space travel. I asked her to imagine the space capsule and what was inside. The picture of the space craft sprang readily from her vivid imagination and she described the empty ship, and the bleakness of her surroundings.

I asked her: So how would you like it to be? We spent several minutes giving the place a makeover. We painted the sides and put up decorations, and it felt like the house when she had her friends round for a party and the mess and clutter was cleared away and balloons put up.

I was reminded of this vignette when thinking about lockdown. It does feel a bit like being in a space ship in the middle of nowhere. But creativity and imagination can help transform what could be like a prison into a rich experience which expands our horizons. As William Blake said:

The mind is its own place
And of itself can make
A heaven of hell

A hell of heaven.

Best wishes to all during the lockdown. Stay safe and stick by the social distancing guidelines. Even if you’re not on the front line, you can save lives by being caring and responsible.

Growing Pains

I have been reading Emily Carr’s autobiography Growing Pains.

Autobiography is not a genre that I typically enjoy, but this narrative by the Canadian West Coast painter has hooked me. She is young, creative, aspiring but also abrasive, acerbic and sharp. You wonder if her slashing wit is a kind of defence, a way to keep people from getting anywhere near to the vulnerable quick of her inner Self.

I was reminded of my own “growing pains” when I first went to London after university. Aged 22, with a moderately good degree, I had looked forward to being unleashed on the Big City. But my salary was barely enough to cover rent and food, and I had an overdraft and non-sympathetic bank manager. My girlfriend was erratic and still at University. Weeks earlier my friends had all been in walking distance, and available at all times of day or night; now they were scattered, getting to see them would often take more than an hour and work sandwiched the time to see each other into a narrow band between 6 pm and midnight.

Sometimes it takes time to find your feet. My first bed-sit was so damp there was a strong fungal quality to the air, and the radiators didn’t work. I seem to remember my parents had helped me financially by buying me a suit and office shirts, but the “furnished” room didn’t even have coat hangers, let alone a wardrobe to hang them in. I was utterly miserable. It was hardly worth buying furniture for a place I knew that I would leave within months. In fact, I made my escape after a few cold weekend days and nights wrapped up in a sleeping bag.

The drudgery of my accommodation matched that of the job. I had joined a large accountancy firm and was training to be a chartered accountant, but after a month I knew this was not for me. During the day I would tick invoices, take stock, and run through questionnaires with employees of the firm I was auditing, with not a clue about the overall purpose of these activities. I had intended to be a journalist but for some bizarre reason this had seemed insufficiently serious an activity, and a good solid background in finance looked to be a better bet. It was, after all, the early 1980s. My mistake, but it would take me six months and around 60 job applications to rectify it.

A friend had offered me a room in a house her father had rented on her behalf in Maida Vale. She had assembled a motley crew of our old college friends, and we would all smoke and drink far too much; but what started as good-natured bohemianism gradually disintegrated into toxicity, tedium and tantrums. No-one could agree what to watch on TV — except when it was the Young Ones, and then we would all sit glued to the sofa, facing ourselves, as if in a mirror, before animosities resumed when the episode was over.

Wine and cigarettes left little spare cash for meals out and drinks in the City with friends. When the opportunity for these arose, however, it carried its own pitfalls. We would chew the bitter cud of other people’s success and ruminate despondently about our own mediocre trajectories and occasional meteoric failures. The dullest of my University chums had jobs at companies like Bankers’ Trust and JP Morgan and in some cases were earning 10x as much as I was.  How was this fair?

More to the point, how was this even possible? I had been used to being the crème de la crème and suddenly here I was, earning less than almost everyone, in a miserable job, in miserable accommodation, in miserable company and with nowhere that I could really call my own. This was not what I had expected at all!

But the worst thing was that it was so difficult to admit that disappointment. Enjoying London was part of the deal, it was what made you an adult, and having fun – drinking too much, smoking too much, staying out too late and missing the last train, ending up sozzled on London Bridge in the cold rain and getting a taxi home that you couldn’t remember let alone afford – this was Real Life, this was what gave It meaning. Life. With a capital L.

Generation Gaps

I am thinking of this slightly non-satisfactory period in my life because my own two children are each, in their own way, about to face that same challenge of Growing Up. One is heading off to University, one is just through with her studies and about to take the leap into the unknown that is life without parents. Both of them, I hope, know that life is never going to be “without parents” (even now, when both my parents have died, they are still in some mysterious way present and close to my heart) but it is a big step to take — to strike out on your own and determine your own future, and be responsible for your own decisions.

Reading Emily Carr’s book reminded me that this is a recurrent challenge for all generations, one that has affected young people through the ages. Emily Carr was 28 years old when she left Canada to study art in the UK. Her account of her journey is sliced through with nostalgia for her Canadian home, and London looms as a particularly difficult station on the way.

What could be more frightening than visiting a strange country where you know no one? She visits various friends and relatives, suggested by well-intentioned family members and her guardian, but you have a sense of intense ambivalence. Routinely, she demonizes the individuals she has been urged to befriend, railing at them from the start, even though often, over time, she grows to feel a strong affection for them.

While these people are there for her in her hour of need, you feel they are also a kind of extended family that prevents her from individuating from the bosom of her parents. Perhaps, then, it is the people you know most closely who are actually most frightening, because they can hold you to your old way of life while you are fighting to break free and be yourself? I recall the poem by John Clare, written when he was in an insane asylum:

“And even the nearest
Whom I love the best
Are strange – nay, somewhat
Stranger than the rest”.

Perhaps Emily Carr’s “growing pains” were more painful because she had lost both her parents by the time she was 15. Emily doted on her father, but became estranged from him because, in her view, she stood up to his autocratic manner; and she was close to her mother, but being part of a large family, seemed ever to be insecure about having her mother’s individual undivided affection.

You have a sense of deep, unresolved grief at the loss of her parents, complicated by these complex cross-currents of love, affection, loyalty but also betrayal, pain and divided loyalties. This desperate crucible of feelings is intensified by her travel. She wants to be an artist, but to achieve that at the level to which she aspires, she must cut herself off from her past. She feels homesick, but identifies herself as a “difficult” person, relentless, never giving in to what others want her to be. She is Rebel Yell rather than Canadian Club.

Even more painful than the Pain of Being is Emily’s capacity for joy. She wants so much, her soul is so wide, her heart so big. Again, I am reminded of a poem, this time by Emily Dickinson:

“I can wade Grief
Whole pools of it
But the least taste of joy
Breaks up my feet”.

Reading “Growing Pains”, I was reminded of the complexity of this process of growing up and being able to live on your own terms. It is not an on/off switch, even though the law insists on putting in place markers at 16, 17, 18 and 21 that define black-and-white thresholds for being “adult enough” to do certain activities.

I feel this gives a sense of it being like an exam, a series of hurdles to be cleared. Rather, “growing up” is a continuum. It continues through teens, twenties and thirties and arguably it never actually stops. It is joyful, painful, bitter-sweet, multi-faceted. It isn’t just about how you are, but how you want to be, and how you want to seem.

Virtual Reality

We had a stand at the exhibition centre in Houston, a cavernous building that resembled an aircraft hangar. I have been to many such industry events, where contractors, equipment manufacturers, industrialists, manufacturers and a plethora of ancillary firms gather to show off their wares. This time, I was left wondering whether there was a different, more authentic way to do business.

Behind the scenes

The day before the show opened to the public, I had arrived at the exhibition hall to set up the stand. We got out of our Uber at the back of the venue. The parking lot stretched from the north end of the building to the south, a distance of around 400 meters. Containers littered the tarmac, vying for space with the vans and lorries, huge cotton bales tight with wire and rope, and dozens if not hundreds of the blue-collar staff wearing hard hats and orange-yellow gilets. We wheeled our voluminous suitcases across the tarmac to what appeared to be an entrance.

I was wearing my grey suit and Minoan Sun t-shirt, and my colleague was in shirt-sleeves and shorts. We could have been two tourists heading for the beach. The hangar was heaving with activity. I felt like I had woken up to find myself on a football pitch in the middle of the warm-up. Small and large forklifts dribbled their way through the crates, large cranes and caterpillar vehicles ground forward at a slower pace. People shouted at each other, in a variety of languages, pitches and tones, and with a great range of emotional tenors on display, typically impatience, anger and irritation.

The stands were in various stages of construction, some still wrapped up in tight plastic film, others with their sides assembled towering 30 feet from the ground. Green, blue and white wires dangled from the ceiling, often looped in coils, so they resembled a hangman’s noose. Forklift trucks revved their engines. Not all the drivers were men, but they all looked pretty tough.

The stands consisted of panels and ribs of scaffolding, large crates covered in cellophane, metals struts and tubes that formed the frame. For some reason, they reminded me of the bleached bones we used to see in the gamepark when an animal had died and then rotted in the hot African sun. I also had the image of a whale, its huge bones flenched and stripped of their life.

All Right on the Night?

At this early stage of their construction, it felt like there was an equality between the highest and lowest, the biggest and smallest; but a hierarchy was rapidly evolving as the panels of the bigger stands were erected.

There was a hierarchy among the workers, too. As soon as I entered the hangar, a large lady with a yellow vest that bulged like a back-to-front backpack shouted in my direction. Apparently even this outer sanctum of the hall could be entered only by those wearing a luminous orange or yellow plastic vest. Once this had been obtained from the designated room, it became evident that we also needed a wrist band, and this could only be obtained from a similar designated room on the far other side of the building. But crossing the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall to obtain this was Not Allowed.

We were required to circumnavigate the hall, a journey of approximately half a mile. In the end, we waited for the mayhem to cover our tracks, then walked across the forbidden waters between us and the wrist-band room, our act of silent defiance, a kind of forbidden miracle.

As the work progressed, rather than bare bones, a light gloss began to appear from the carnage and disarray. The make-up went on layer after layer. The large corporate logos were meticulously positioned, towering over the scene, their reds and gold and blues and greens and yellows shouting out the message: We’re here, we’re visible! Bare floors with tyre marks and cuts were covered with spongy, scuff-free carpets, deep linos that yielded to the footfall of passers-by, giving a feeling of plushness and depth.

Wall hangings, corporate wallpaper, huge banners replaced the bare panel walls. Makeshift tables and booths sprung up out of nowhere. Inner meetings rooms with large white uncomfortable cubist armchairs were magicked up out of the skeletal landscape, mirages in a desert of tat. By the end of the day, the workers in their orange and yellow vests, and hard hats, had begun to give way to a different class of stand visitor. Grey-suited executives in pencil skirts and robust looking suits looked over the stands with a critical eye. Some barked anxiously into their mobile phones, angry that certain details had been overlooked, commanding perfection.

The morning that the show opened, we arrived at our stand – A350. Our stand was a modest 9 square meters and at floor level on the edges of the exhibition hall arena (some of the biggest stands at the centre of the hall spanned several hundred square meters and were two or three storeys high).

Other stands were already unpacking their hampers with the eager zeal of those who have been visited by Santa Claus.  Heaps of glossy leaflets, thick corporate books, stress foam objects from the state of Texas to the human brain, objects of every variety of plastic were conjured out of nothing and festooned the stall furniture. It was like the climax of a Symphonie Fantastique, a wave of fake opulence in a petrified forest of kitsch.

Every stand was identified by a number, and the furnishings of each stand had been delivered based on this. A350 had performed its own little miracle, the table had been spread with a covering with corporate logo and tagline, the magazines and newsletters were assembled in pretty fans and sheaves of analytical insight, and the maps we had created were piled high but already going like hot cakes.

The one thing it lacked, however, was a television screen. This was a sad omission by our corporate affairs department (Nina). The TV is important because it creates a sense of movement. Increasing footfall, the number of visitors who visit your stand, is the dream of all those who exhibit their wares at the stand. Neuroscience suggests that the human brain and perception is highly geared to noticing movement – apparently, when we were hunter gatherers, our brains became attuned to quickly zooming in on the moving object to spear it efficiently.

An Indian stand had two dancers performing a traditional dance, something which my colleague and I felt was beyond our abilities to deliver. Footfall, but not at all costs.

Out of the Desert

Looking round the stands of our customers and sometimes competitors, I was reminded that Houston itself had sprung up from the desert like a forest of glass flowers.

The words of the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley popped into my head:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The lofty structures had emerged from the desert floor like mirages, and I knew that after a few days the desert would reclaim them, and the stands would be boxed up and transferred to warehouses or for disposal.

Now, people were milling around swapping business cards, the seniority of staff increasing as you moved from the outer perimeter of the stands to their centre, often a set of meeting rooms that constituted the inner sanctums of the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall. These other stands had achieved the goal of attracting footfall through lavish dinners, free beer and wine, visibly attractive staff, refrigerated drinks that foamed steam, a golf driving range, and virtual reality tours around industrial plants, cities and islands.

Being in this strange, dream-like world soon became my “new normal” — for the next few days. I would have conversations with people who were all, essentially, touting for business at the event. Over the years, I have become pretty good at shaking the hands of complete strangers and striking up a brief rapport with them. Only a very few of these “contacts” have resulted in lasting relationships.

Rather like the stands themselves, it was the hierarchies that fascinated me.  Company personnel prop up the stands wearing smart suits and armed with sheaves of brochures and business cards. Usually the female staff are clerical, although less so recently, wearing bland outfits of cream or grey, sometimes offset by company-issue high heels. Inside, as if in the inner sanctum of a church, the company executives gather to meet clients, shake hands, slap backs, and do business.

It is always familiar, in a slightly depressing way. The meetings are predictable and terribly functional. Huge amounts of money are spent on building ever bigger temples to demonstrate that you, as a business, mean business. Time is strictly allocated, with food and drink events punctuating the day like precise, military drills where the usual reserve is briefly abandoned and replaced by wide smiles and open palms.

The core of this world is entirely illusory. The bonhomie would last only for the minutes of exchange, the generous helpings of corporate largesse were carefully calculated, polite discussion on the stand was always discontinued as soon as it threatened to result in anything substantive.

It was like being in a giant Duty Free lounge. Statistics abound about the number of people who have affairs at such events, and to be honest I am not surprised. There is an attractive anonymity about the experience, and a kind of liberating lack of authenticity. The driving range was not a golf course, the cosmopolitan food was not local but had all been plastic-packed, the modernist castles or spaceships that towered around me had all been flat-packed and were made out of plywood rather than the advanced materials of Star Trek. The stomach lurch from a VR walk off the side of a skyscraper was just a knee-jerk reaction created by the optic nerve.

Virtual reality is the metaphor for such events. All the World’s a Stage. But after three days, I was yearning to see my family and children. Everything had begun to feel like a play, nothing felt solid or real. How could business be built on this foundation? It felt like a house built on sand.

Giving and Taking

People at Psychosynthesis Coaching symposium held Nov 14th 2018 in London. All ages, a range of expressions from enthusiasm to humour.

By Peter Stewart:

The first Annual Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium was held at the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) near King’s Cross in London on 14thNovember.

I wrote the article below after the event, and the symposium organisers kindly featured it on the Symposium website, which also has a wealth of information about the event as well as related photos and videos. Please click on the link below to access the Symposium website:

Tong-len means ‘giving and taking’ in Tibetan.  Keith Hackwood led a Tonglen meditation as part of a plenary session on Selfcare for Coaches Using Mindfulness, immediately after lunch at the first Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium on 14thNovember. “A difficult slot to fill”, he noted. There were around 60 people in the room, from the Institute of Psychosynthesis, Psychosynthesis Trust, various psyschotherapy and coaching associations, and from Psychosynthesis organisations from as far afield as Norway and Italy.

Lunch had been replete with conversation and ideas. I felt a buzz of excitement in the room as we settled down, shaking out the tension from arms and legs. For some reason, I could smell orange blossom.

Tong-len is a meditation practice from Tibetan Buddhism that uses breathing to explore feelings of altruism and compassion. The in-breath connects you with suffering – your own, others – and the outbreath with compassion for the world. Keith explained the concept, touched on the paradox of effortless effort in practicing meditation, and quoted a poem by Antonio Machado, translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly. The rest of the session was experiential, reconnecting with our feelings, letting them go, reconnecting with thoughts, letting the mind go still. I felt shocks of anxiety at the start, but after a while that gave way to a feeling of tidal movement, an ebb and flow, the traffic noise outside and the cry of seagulls.

The mix of experiential and conceptual was a strong point of the whole day, which was superbly organised by Rachel Houghton, Paul Elliot and Aubyn Howard of Psychosynthesis Coaching Limited (PCL).

Roger Evans, director of the Institute of Psychosynthesis, introduced the Symposium in the morning with a paradox:

Seeing with the heart = seeing and working with the will.

Roger explained something called the Six Session Model and the use of Trifocal Vision in coaching. Many of those attending, including myself, were familiar with these models from the Certificate course in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching organised by PCL and run at the Institute, and Roger brought them alive with what I felt was a unique and passionate engagement with each individual in the room.

Roger’s talk on psycho-spiritual coaching gave a flavour of why psychosynthesis works at such a deep level, by focusing on meaning rather than just performance. I was moved by Roger’s commitment and passion, and the tribute he paid to his family. Then there was a brief moment when I felt that the world stopped turning. Roger asked the question: “What do you feel when you open your heart to another?” Various words were shot out from the audience – I seem to remember joy, openness, waiting, loneliness, but when someone responded “pain” it felt like an arrow had hit its target.

After Roger’s plenary session, we split into two workshops. In the morning, Keith Silvester and Heather Wignall from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked about coaching in a VUCA world, while Ruth Rochelle gave a workshop on systemic coaching and constellations. The same pattern was followed in the afternoon. After Keith Hackwood’s plenary, Harriett Hanmer and Laira Gold gave a talk with the title The Body Speaks while Aubyn Howard explored the theme of Developmental Thinking for Coaching.

The workshops sharpened my awareness of the paradox at the heart of coaching. I felt this most explicitly during Ruth Rochelle’s exploration of constellations, which used Post-it notes as the main prop. Ruth’s workshop comprised two constellations: the first revolved around depicting ’where I live‘ on the Post-it, and exploring how place and movement can affect the felt experience of that; the second involved representing three phases of your life on Post-its, and then exploring the feelings associated with these with the help of a coach.

While the experiential nature of the workshop was very powerful, space felt rather tight in the room, with more than 30 people in a circle of chairs, so I did not slip easily into this, feeling bombarded by others. I noticed my body getting slightly hot and then my mind rushing to compensate. As I settled down I was able to get a sense of being back in the moment, but I kept on trying to make mental sense of what was going on around me as people milled around the room without any words. My mind grabbed at thought as a way of filling these gaps. But as the workshop evolved, I felt more tuned into myself and somehow that left me feeling more in sync with other people.

The paradox of meaning that struck me then, and throughout the day, was the notion that you can be most deeply in touch with your Self when the self dissolves; that you can experience the Self of others most profoundly when you are most in touch with your own Self.

Somatic coaching is increasingly being used as a pathway to deeper levels of self-awareness and of experiencing others. Later in the day, a workshop on equine-guided learning introduced the statistic that only 7% of personal communication is through spoken words, while 38% is dependent on voice and tone, and 55% on body language.

From the feedback after the constellations workshop, people had experienced a huge range of emotions through the constellation, but at a much deeper level than the cognitive-rational. And the workshop resonated with many in terms of how they could use their experience with their own coaching clients.

Moved to tears by horses

From Ruth’s workshop I got a sense of the power of using the entirety of Self in coaching, and how constellations could be used to explore the Self at a deeper level. This theme was picked up in the afternoon in Harriet Hanmer and Laira Gold’s workshop The Body Speaks (they will be holding a day for practitioners of Equine-Guided Learning on 16 March 2019).

Harriet and Laira work with horses to help senior executives explore systemic interactions in their organisations. Many managers are simply unaware of these. I found myself strangely amused by the idea of company directors milling around in the mud at Manor Farm House in Colston Basset in Welly Boots, where Harriet and Laira work, exploring the Mind-Body split. But I was moved when I saw a photo of the sympathetic body language between one horse and the MD of a company, and we learned that he had been moved to tears by the human-horse interaction.     

Harriet introduced the theory of the ’triune‘ brain, with its human (neocortex), mammalian (limbic system) and reptilian layers, which although nowadays under scrutiny from neuroscientists, provides a framework for moving beyond the conscious ’thinking‘ part of our brains and into the less charted realms of the limbic system and more primitive sub-conscious layers.

After the talk I spoke with Laira about whether equine-guided learning could be used in schools. I had watched a documentary about a ’failing‘ school (Ofsted’s word, not mine) and I was struck by how discipline in schools focusses primarily on verbal affirmations by young teenagers. I felt from the documentary that their body often contradicted their words and, although I don’t know horses, I occasionally had felt a similar kind of resentment and dissonance when walking with donkeys.

I can imagine many other uses for equine work. “The world needs this,” Harriet and Laira affirmed.

Are we in the soup?

One of the last slides in Harriet and Laira’s deck asked the question: “Are we in the soup?” I use this question as a segway to mention the two workshops I was unable to attend.

Keith Silvester from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked in the morning on Coaching in a VUCA world, with Heather Wignall. I felt there was synchronicity in the fact that Keith’s talk coincided with the day a Brexit agreement was finally thrashed out by the May government and the European Union.

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Keith and Heather suggested that the four aspects of VUCA map on to psychological themes that are taught in psychosynthesis and other therapeutic models. From the programme notes, these are: lack of object constancy, which maps from Volatility; existential survival anxiety (from Uncertainty); systems thinking and mind development (from Complexity); and relative meaning and interpretation (from Ambiguity).

In a session that provided impressive thought leadership, Heather and Keith also talked about VUCA in relation to ‘adaptive leadership’ (as developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, through a book of that name). As one workshop participant observed: “The VUCA model …links to a really useful leadership model [adaptive leadership] and the workshop included a practical tool to use in coaching related to this” which a number of participants said would be useful in their current coaching work. As noted by Heather and Keith: “Adaptive leadership is specifically designed to support personal and organisational leadership” in a VUCA context.

The VUCA theme linked naturally to the evolutionary perspectives discussed in Aubyn Howard’s session in the afternoon on the current crisis in leadership. Aubyn introduced Frederic Laloux’s evolutionary paradigm, familiar from the book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness. Laloux’s book is premised on the idea that corporate culture has evolved from highly hierarchical top-down structures to more ethically-driven self-governing and self-regulating structures build around committed teams; in the book’s colour scheme, from red to teal organisations.

Those attending the workshop split into groups and discussed how coaches could support leaders to make a developmental shift in their consciousness. This is what Aubyn calls ‘The Big Question’. He challenged: “How can we as coaches nurture, activate and encourage the evolutionary paradigm in emergent leaders in organisations and society?”

But back to my earlier question: are we in the soup? My impression from those I spoke to after they attended both the VUCA and developmental sessions is that the answer is a resounding yes. The world is in a mess.

But at least psychosynthesis offers hope that we can find a way out of the crisis we are in. The day ended with a brief discussion on neuroscience, and we were lucky to have an expert in the field in the audience.

Aubyn talked about neuro-plasticity, the idea that the brain is an adaptive organ that can evolve and develop over the course of an individual lifetime.

Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, set great store by the exercise of Will in the emergence of Self. I found it mind-blowing that neuroscience is discovering mechanisms by which consciousness can evolve over the space of a lifetime, as a result of individual purpose and the pursuit of meaning, rather than passively as a series of random mutations. It seemed like a powerful link to Assagioli’s heritage and teaching.

As Aubyn said at the start of the Symposium: “The whole world of psychosynthesis is rejuvenating. It feels like it’s flourishing and it’s in touch with the zeitgeist”.

I look forward to next year’s Symposium and the opportunity to take these conversations into yet newer realms!

Peter Stewart

Blue Monday and the Wolf Moon

Blue Monday is apparently the day that most people feel is the most depressing of the year. This year, it fell on the day after the Super Blood Wolf Moon.

I don’t know who decides the date of Blue Monday, nor whether the choice is governed by genuine statistical analysis. Perhaps it’s just a marketing exercise intended to rattle the weary masses from their winter torpor and out onto the streets for January sales and a spot of lunchtime retail therapy. Most years, it falls in the third week of January, which actually makes a sort of sense: people have been with their friends and families over Christmas and New year, they get back to work for a few weeks, renewed and refreshed. Then just as the novelty is wearing off and the weather is getting bleaker, the feeling of drudgery sets in and Blue Monday strikes.

This year it struck on 21st January — the day after the moon passed through the shadow of the earth, causing a total lunar eclipse. I was struck by the odd alignment of the two events, the Wolf moon and Blue Monday. Super Blood Wolf Moon is definitely a headline writer’s dream, it sounds like the climax of a pagan festival. You can imagine Palaeolithic peoples thirty thousand years ago looking up at the same full moon, looming nearer than they had ever seen it, almost so you could reach out and touch it. As it gradually turned red, what would they have felt? Awe, fear, wonder, regret, perhaps a mixture of conflicting emotions all bundled together. Although we are finding out more about the astronomical knowledge of prehistoric peoples, the chances are that most people would not have known it was coming. Most likely the memory of it would haunt them for weeks after.

Nowadays, scientists can predict such events with great precision. The only random element is the weather, and whether the moon will be visible or skulking behind clouds. I must admit that despite my enthusiasm to see it, I overslept; but my wife set her own alarm clock for 4 am and took some beautiful photos of the reddening orb. The next day, I watched a profusion of photos on Instagram and social media. I felt a dim sense of the great astronomical cycles that shape the seasons and the phases of the moon, but the nearest I got to the superstitious awe felt by my ancestors was when we joked about whether it was a good or bad omen for Brexit.

I’m thinking about that moon today.

I had meant to buy doughnuts for the office on Blue Monday, but for some reason I forgot. Maybe that’s just as well. Many of my friends and work colleagues have been celebrating Dry (or damp) January, cutting back on drinking alcohol, going Vegan or vegetarian, and brandishing Fitbits and various iPhone Apps for fitter healthier lifestyles.

I got into the office later than usual, because I had an early meeting at the solicitors, and caught a train that got me in to work at around 11 am. As usual, deadlines loomed, so I immediately got to work, briefly explaining that my usual open-door policy in the office would be suspended because I had too much to get done. I waded through emails, rattled out one or two replies to our Moscow office, cranked out a draft feature article for the weekly newsletter, and then nipped out around 2 pm for the usual pre-fabricated meal, nowadays packaged in biodegradable paper rather than PET and polyethylene-based plastics. I had two meetings that afternoon, and I would head back home around 5.30 as usual.

Despite the ominous Blue Monday headlines in the newspapers, everyone seemed happy enough in our office.

As usual, people had their heads down; most were tapping on keyboards, or browsing the Internet for information; a few had spreadsheets open, looking for trends in the data they were studying for clues about the market; the sales team were hitting the button on their emails and having the odd disappointing chat with a person who by and large did not want to speak with them. There wasn’t that much discussion or banter. It was a good, productive group of people who would turn in good enough results over the year.

Business as usual.

But statistically, I knew, someone in the office was suffering. For Blue Monday, my daughter had put on a drama project in Birmingham called Out of the Blue. This was part of her theatre studies course at the university.

She had created a poster with the title of the piece in colourful looping letters – red, yellow, pink, black, blue — behind which lurked a white and grey script of pain and suffering: bipolar, crazy, bored, psycho, flaky, down, messy, tired, different, depressed…

Although the stigma of mental illness is less than it has been, it still exists. Naturally I felt proud of my daughter for tackling such a difficult topic for her drama degree. Although we did not talk about it in detail, I felt that she had chosen an interesting set of words to open up the topic, from clinical diagnostic words such as “bipolar” to dismissive words like “pyscho” and “flaky” to everyday feelings of being “bored” and “down”.

Some of those adjectives will apply to people who I’m working alongside, but almost certainly they will not admit their feelings to anyone they are working with. Even when they are unable to cope, they will most likely “throw a sickie” and come up with the excuse of ‘flu or stomach upset to get a respite. This is often because employees feel that their manager will not be understanding, but even with an enlightened employer, they may soldier on in pain rather than admit their condition or talk  to colleagues to find an acceptable modus operandi.

One of the problems about mental illness is the terminology that is used to describe it. Mental and emotional states are complex, personal and changing, and the diagnostic labels applied to them can be felt as reductive and judgemental, whether they come from someone who is medically-qualified or from a friend or work colleague.

Many years ago, I suffered a bout of what I think of now as acute mental suffering.  The triggers were multiple, and complex; I was going through a creative crisis, a close relative had tried to end their life and a long-term relationship had ended. Later on, abut slightly different circumstances, I wrote a book called Out of the Blue. I tried to to capture the sense of loss, and the way that mental turmoil can swoop unexpectedly, much as the Blood Red Wolf Moon would have done in prehistoric times, before we had devised the technology to predict it.

Although I took time off work, I am reluctant to use terms like “stress”, “depression” or “nervous breakdown” to describe my experience, because it did not feel like I was going through a mental “illness” as such. In many ways, I was feeling things more intensely but also more truthfully than usual. At the same time, I definitely needed some time out from the demands of work to get through this.

 Nowadays, I feel it was a learning experience that has allowed me to to understand that any kind of “mental illness” is a deeply personal experience, and even one that may actually be rather difficult to empathise with. This is not meant to be unsympathetic. Empathy is extremely important in both coaching and counselling. But inaccurate empathy can feel like stereotyping. I am not a particularly private person, and I tend to be very open about my experiences, good and bad.

Many times after I had my bout of suffering, I felt horribly labelled when someone came up to me and volunteered too readily: “Oh don’t worry, I know exactly what it’s like”. This might be followed by the statement: “I’ve been there myself” but as often as not, I would be told: “My friend had exactly the same thing”.

Howling wolf

The media has got much better at disseminating relevant statistics: one in four people will have a mental illness at some time in their life, for example.  According to the website mixed anxiety and  depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain; 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime, and 7.8% of people meet the criteria for diagnosis.

But we are a society that finds the third person more comfortable than the first person.

I don’t feel it was particularly helpful to look at myself and my experience of mental anguish as a statistic in this way. It feels as lacking in meaning as a “diagnosis”.

I felt like I had got in touch with a deep well of darkness in myself, and that I was connected with the kind of inarticulate experience that prehistoric man or woman might have felt when they looked at a Super Blood Wolf Moon. Of course, I cannot know what he or she felt; just as someone who tells me their friend has had the “same thing” as me has no way of knowing if that’s actually the case.

In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the extreme winter depression experienced by polar Eskimos, known as perlerorneq – which Lopez cites an anthropologist translating as “the weight of life”. Lopez describes vividly how this feeling of being sick of life manifests itself in moments of mad irresponsible and even self-harming behaviour, which is followed by a deeply compassionate response from the family of the sufferer.

I was very touched reading that account. There are many times I have felt like being able to unleash the howling wolf within. A society where that is meant by compassion rather than embarrassed looks and a turning down of the eyes seems to me to be one that is rather sane.  I am not particularly advocating perlerorneq as a modus operandi for office communication, but I do feel we should do what we can to make it a more compassionate and inclusive place in which people can be themselves more fully.

Welcoming in 2019 with mixed feelings


Many of my friends on Facebook, and many coaches whom I follow on Twitter, have described their  New Year celebrations and expansive plans for 2019. For myself, this New Year has been more than usually underwhelming.

I often say inwardly that I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve reading a book at home, rather  than heading out into the cold to spend a few hours with friends at their home, partying, or down an ill-lit pub or club, downing Prosecco and champagne and other variants of bubbly. Invariably I get into the spirit of things, drink too much of the largely indistinguishable alcohols on offer, and wake up feeling the pain of hangover and the happiness of renewal of another New Year.

This year, and as I have done in almost all previous years, I ignored the urge to stay at home. I ventured out into the cold and down the quiet streets of my home town, ending up at the local Con Club. Unlike in all previous years, however, I really do wish I had just had a quiet evening in and read a book.

It’s not that the evening was an unmitigated disaster. Certainly not a car crash.

Apart from a half-hour argument about politics with a close friend, triggered by my anti-Brexit T-shirt, that lasted between 11.15 pm and around 11.45 (as far as I recall, from looking repeatedly at the clock) it was mostly quite pleasant. The conversation was lively, for the most part, and the refugees from another party towards midnight suggested we had not chosen the worst option in terms of the entertainment and company. The hugs and kisses at New Year were as happy and sincere as ever.

But definitely this year it did not go with the usual zing. My heart felt as if it were in another place from the crowded room, which smelt of spilt beer, and reverberated with the noise of the  post- middle-aged rock band. The argument before midnight racketed around in my head after the bells had tolled like a deaf bat, leaving a bad aftertaste. I felt a gaping distance behind every burst of laughter.

When I got home, finally, I felt that everything was tainted, even my closest friendships. I remembered my mother, who died exactly two years earlier, and I felt emotional that my kids were now grown up and had (effectively) flown the parental nest.

The lengthening shadows of Brexit swept me into a deepening gloom that has not yet shifted.


Why do I tell you this? I’m sorry if this is not an upbeat New Year message. Nor do I have any terrific new insights to draw from my somewhat sub-optimal experience, beyond that life does not always go with a bang.

Of course, I hope that 2019 will be a wonderful year for myself, my family and every single one of my friends. I hope it will be wonderful for you too. And I still hope that Brexit will not happen. But the reality is that it is more likely to be a mixed bag, and that Brexit is more likely to happen than not. As my late father said, we’ll just  have to find some way to “muddle through”.

At least this New Year has not kicked-off with  unrealistic expectations. I often feel we are fed a diet of saccharin self-satisfaction through social media, a distorting mirror in which the reflection is always more perfect than the reality.

Recipes for the good life abound. Bob Dylan once said, “Everybody wants you to be just like them”. Whether it’s the peremptory injunctions for self-improvement on Twitter or book-length manuals for higher levels of performance and achievement; whether it’s picture perfect Selfie images on Instagram or lengthy descriptions of the family achievements over the last year on Facebook; TV-ready Ted talks or the video of New Year fireworks in Thailand on Youtube — the message from Social Media can be relentless: Someone has it better than you.

I hope that my rather downbeat New Year narrative will, at least, help to stem this relentless tide of false expectation and inflated comparison. At a deeper level, I hope also that those who read it will realise that it’s perfectly okay to have ups and downs.

I believe that coaching can help us learn from these highs and lows, to achieve deeper levels of self-awareness and inner contentment. I believe it can help us to exercise the will to achieve our deepest goals, but also deepen self-acceptance so that we do not have to listen to the constant noise of self-comparison.

In that spirit*  I would like to leave you with the following thoughts:

Real life is often less than perfect, even at New Year, with all its hilarity and hope. The hand we are dealt contains spades as well as hearts, clubs as well as diamonds. Our moods are often positive, but sometimes not.  We make mistakes, so do our friends; we have regrets, so do they. The year ahead will have highs but also lows. Some will be our fault, others will be down to events beyond our control.

We will achieve some of our cherished hopes through character, attitude, hard work, spirit and good luck; but sometimes we will fail. We will overcome some fears, but not all. Hopefully we will feel happy, joyous, warm, excited, loving, loved; but we will also go through periods where we are sad, frustrated, impatient, angry, maybe even despairing at times. Hopefully, our friends, family, loved ones will give us comfort and support; but it is not unlikely that on some days, we will have to hold ourselves.

Whatever 2019 holds for you, my best wishes and warm regards.  

Final thought:

* I hope those who read this post will do so in the spirit in which it is intended, and not regard it as negative or depressing. Feel free to comment and I will certainly reply. Look after yourselves in the year ahead. Please do seek  help if you feel hopeless or unable to cope.


Psychosynthesis Coaching First Annual Symposium

I thoroughly enjoyed the first annual Psychosynthesis Coaching symposium held earlier this month in London’s NCVO near King’s Cross.

Below is a link to the Psychosynthesis Coaching website which gives my write-up of the event,  and lots of useful links about the plenary sessions and workshops, the Symposium workbook, further details of the Postgraduate certificate  course in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching  and photos of the day.

The next course starts in in February 2019 and the provisional date for next year’s Psychosynthesis Coaching symposium is 6th November, 2019.


Symposium 2018

Blackfoot Physics

Quantum physicist F. David Peat spent years talking with friends among the First Nations people of Canada, trying to understand their world view, which he suggests is radically different from that held by many in the west.

This book the reader through topics usually considered New Age, but with the unique perspective that these are based on insights shared by representatives of the First Nations with whom Peat has become friends. Sacred Medicine, Sacred Mathematics and Sacred Music are all included in the panoply.

I found this book most convincing when it talked about the different perspectives of indigenous peoples on issues where westerners are so clear: land ownership, access rights, legal systems and so on.

The section on time was also terrific; our western idea that we make an appointment and  stick to it punctually is turned on its head.  Peat says that for First Nations people, the time at which something happens is like the strange attractor of  quantum physics – something that spurs actions that enable the event to occur. Our actions result from the event, rather than determining it.

Many physicists, including the most famous, have admitted to gaps in the sacred dogmas of science, and Peat is admirable to entertain the prospect that he can learn from “native science”. Where I found his account faulty was in the apparent disdain he reserves for westerners who are exploring new bounds of spirituality.

His discussion of sacred medicine and the medicine wheel captured the essential concept of balance that is at heart of modern-day shamanism. He describes the intimate link between mind and body, man and nature, living beings and the cosmos.

But Peat is weirdly dismissive of people who spend their weekends opening their minds to such practices. True, he has a unique perspective, having worked at the cutting edge of quantum science, and also spent many hours with indigenous scientists.

But this does not justify his dismissive attitude to those who may want to expand their spiritual vision but don’t have his privileged background.

I would have liked to see his book encourage a wider  interest in the scientific beliefs of First Nation peoples, who– as he says —  are taking back control of their destiny and working to re-establish trust with westerners who have long dismissed them as simple “natives”.

Instead, it adopts a rather hectoring tone to those who are already on the journey. My guess is that he sees modern day shamans as jumping on a band-wagon, which is fair enough but makes unjustified assumptions about the sincerity of shamanic practitioners. He clearly believes that he is different from such populists, but this in itself begs many questions.